Betsy Stowe is changing lives.
An idea spawned by one woman as she sat in her home pondering a volunteer opportunity has now touched the lives of over 150 Oakdale students and their families. Stowe was the brains and driving force behind SMART (Student Mentor Arranged Reading Times), a reading program to benefit at-risk children in Oakdale Joint Unified School District, with the help of Assistant Superintendent Kristi Rapinchuk.
“I was sitting in my quiet home and thought I so miss being with children,” Stowe shared of the program’s inception in 2010. “I sat thinking and thought I bet I can make a difference in the life of a child.”
Stowe spoke with Rapinchuk and former Cloverland Elementary School Principal Stacey Aprile to develop a plan and target group which they felt would best benefit from her idea. The decision was made that reading volunteers would be partnered with one second grade child. The volunteer/child relationship would span the entire school year, with a once a week meeting during lunch recess.
The program began at Cloverland in the fall of 2010. At the start of the school year there were a total of eight mentor/student pairings, by year’s end there were 16.
“We do tutor,” Stowe said, “but that’s not the objective. We have to be careful with the child. The child does not have to do this. They come during their lunch hour. It’s 100 percent voluntary.”
According to Stowe, the second grade students are identified by the teacher and recommended for the program in the first three weeks of school. Parents are notified of the opportunity and given the option for their student to participate. The program is currently offered at all four Oakdale Elementary schools and has taught 150 second graders to read.
“Second grade they think we’re still wonderful,” Stowe said. “It’s also the critical time for reading.
“The dream ended up becoming a working principle,” Stowe continued. “There is a one on one friendship that develops with a child.”
Stowe, however, was not able to touch the lives of all those children single handedly. It took the help of her growing volunteer pool to expand the program from one campus to all four.
Allison Clark was one such volunteer. Clark first joined the SMART team in the fall of 2011.
“I spotted a blurb in the Oakdale Leader looking for volunteers,” Clark said. “I had retired and was getting bored. I was a special ed teacher for a number of years.
“I called Betsy, met with her and … the rest is history.”
Clark shared how as a past educator she quickly noticed the self-improvement in the students, their self-image and confidence.
“All it takes is this little one on one,” Clark said. “This little, I care. There’s nothing that beats the one on one system.”
“We’re there, we’ve committed to them,” Stowe said of the one hour a week partnering relationship between mentor and student. “Us showing up shows them two things: you are important to me. Reading is important to me.”
Both volunteers shared success stories of past students. Conversations they have with the students and other volunteers as each year comes to a close. Many of the students sharing their pride and joy in ‘learning how to read in second grade.’
One other shared something even more rewarding and special. The student, from a primarily Spanish-speaking family knew very little English, and did not have a family member at home to read to him.
“He told the story to the volunteer of how he learned to read in second grade,” Stowe said, “and that he would go home and read what he had learned to his mom. She had learned English from his reading.”
The program however, can only touch the lives of as many students as there are volunteers. Currently the potential of the 2015-16 school year is 35 students. One on one relations call for one volunteer per student.
“We need volunteers,” Stowe emphasized. “We tried to make it as user friendly as we possibly can. If you can read English and you love children and you’re willing to give up one lunch hour once a week … you can do this.”
The group of volunteers gathers in a large room at one of the four elementary schools Monday through Thursday of each week between the hours of 11:15 a.m. and noon, spending one day at each school.
At the end of each school year each student is given a book signed by their mentor.
“It is gratifying to realize what I sign in the book of all my students each year,” the founder said, “If you can read, you can learn anything.”
Volunteers are welcome at any and all times. For persons interested in the volunteer opportunity call Betsy Stowe at (209) 404-2298.